One year later, cultural groups showing resilience

Imperial Theatre executive director Brian Austin Jr. Troy Shantz

Here’s good news for anyone who enjoys a live performance in Sarnia, a trip to a local art gallery or the chance to appreciate homegrown talent.

Many of your familiar haunts including the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, The Imperial Theatre and the Gallery in the Grove are managing quite well through this pandemic and plan to come back with a bang once it’s safe.

That’s saying a lot, given they are largely run by volunteers and rely on programs and fundraising to keep the doors open.

Over at the Imperial Theatre, you could say they aren’t just surviving the pandemic, they’re killing it.

With no live performances, the challenge is to pay the theatre’s three remaining staff, cover the building’s overhead, and complete renovations that were underway when the first lockdown hit.

General manager Brian Austin Jr. says he took all the obvious steps early. He turned down the heat and cut hydro bills in half. The Imperial held a few small fundraisers and a “Concert in a Bubble” on Christina Street last summer. But nothing generated the $760,000 needed to keep the organization afloat for the year.

Then inspiration struck.

Austin was on Facebook and noticed the Toronto Blue Jays had huge success with a 50/50 digital raffle last spring.

“Our in-person raffles during our intermissions always made a couple hundred dollars, so I thought, ‘Why not?’ and took it to the board.”

Once the onerous paperwork involved in a third-party raffle was sorted out, the Imperial held its first monthly raffle in October. For the first three months, the prize money was a respectable $10,000 or so.

But sales suddenly exploded in January when the take-home prize was $61,510, enough money to actually change someone’s life. It also meant the theatre pocketed $44,000.

The February 50/50 raffle is doing even better and the prize money was over $72,000 as of last week.

The raffles are by far the most successful fundraiser the Imperial Theatre has ever had, said Austin Jr.

“I think people miss the theatre and want to support us, but they can also win something for themselves,” he said. “It’s been incredible.”

His personal goal is to see the prize reach $100,000.

“That’s a pretty big deal in Sarnia,” he said.

The success of the raffles means the Imperial Theatre will be able to complete its renovations despite the pandemic.

Austin Jr. said he still worries about expenses while the doors are locked, but the raffle offers hope the Imperial will make a strong comeback after the pandemic.

The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts and Gallery in the Grove don’t have big fundraisers right now and they’ve suffered with postponed shows and reduced revenues.

But spokespersons for each say they have kept expenses low during the pandemic and, because they are volunteer-driven and operate out of city-owned buildings, they’re going to be OK.

“We’ve survived and we’re thriving,” said Gallery in the Grove chair Kirsten Kilner Holmes. She and her board hope to open for a show in April.

“Our gift shop has gone online,” said Leonard Segall, a board member with the Lawrence House. “We are managing through this and will be back when this is all done.”

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that Theatre Forty Two, a community theatre on Devine Street, was sadly forced to shut down permanently three months into the pandemic.

But on the whole, local cultural groups are keeping busy preparing to welcome patrons back when it’s safe.

The Arts Journal focuses on Sarnia’s normally robust cultural life.  Send your ideas to cathy.dobson@thesarniajournal.ca.